By Jim Harter, Gallup Chief Scientist for Workplace and Wellbeing
A new report by the consulting firm Leadership IQ claims that in 42% of organizations, poor performers are actually more likely to be engaged at work than are high performers. This finding appears to contradict almost two decades’ worth of management research.
Like any claims that end up in popular media, we need to take a close look at the evidence to know what the data are really saying, and compare that research to other research completed on the topic. New research should be continuous and challenge existing wisdom. Past findings should be debated. But, we should always examine the quality of the basis for new findings in the context of past findings.
Gallup in 1997 completed its first meta-analysis -- or study of many studies -- on employee engagement using data from 1,135 business units. The central question we wanted to answer was whether workplace conditions correlate with business outcomes such as profit, productivity, customer perceptions of service, and employee retention. We just completed our eighth iteration of this same analysis, which now includes 49,928 business units across 34 countries, and analyzes even more outcomes, such as quality (defects), safety (accidents), absenteeism, and shrinkage (theft). Various iterations of this meta-analysis have been published in peer-reviewed, top tier academic journals and books, including a longitudinal causal analysis.
The central, and consistent, finding has been that employee engagement -- which Gallup defines as 12 specific workplace elements -- predicts objective performance outcomes within organizations and this relationship holds true across very different types of organizations. Meta-analysis enables us to test whether the correlations are consistent or different across organizations. The data are very clear: if engagement is measured appropriately, it predicts business outcomes across organizations.
Now, this doesn’t mean that highly productive employees are never disengaged or that low-performing employees are never engaged. But, what our study does tell us is that when business units have more engaged employees their probability of success improves substantially. In fact, those with high engagement nearly double the odds of success compared with those with low engagement.
So, working on management elements, things like clarifying expectations, giving people an opportunity to do what they do best, giving employees developmental opportunities, and holding people accountable for quality work increase the odds that business units within your organization will be successful.
Here at Gallup, we take all new research on employee engagement seriously and have reviewed the Leadership IQ study closely. Based on the available material from the company -- we contacted Leadership IQ for their methodological details, but did not receive a response -- we see six potential questions to consider.
- What is the quality of the performance measurement Leadership IQ used to gauge the performance of individual employees? The Leadership IQ study based its findings on performance appraisal instead of on objective performance data, such as productivity, profit, turnover, customer engagement, safety, absenteeism, quality, and shrinkage. Gallup research has long-proven the clear connection between its Q12 employee engagement metric and these substantive outcomes.
- Why does Leadership IQ present their findings for only one organization? It is unclear why they would do this when they claim to have studied thousands of organizations. Gallup includes all available studies in its meta-analysis, which now includes more than 49,000 business or work units and 1.4 million employees in those units.
- What percentage of the population does each organization in the study represent -- and how large are the samples in each organization? Sampling error and sampling bias can greatly distort conclusions when a near census isn’t obtained from the organizations studied. Gallup attains an average 85% response rate in its employee engagement studies.
- Does the study control for other factors that can influence engagement and performance or do they distort the results? The Leadership IQ study says there is a relationship between being a low performer and being engaged. But, there are likely other factors that could be influencing engagement and performance, such as employee tenure, position, level in the organization, etc.
- Over what time periods did the study measure engagement and performance? Gallup collects a great deal of longitudinal data and includes predictive validity estimates in its analyses (that is, measuring engagement in one year and outcomes in the next year). These studies allow for stronger conclusions of causality than studies where engagement and performance are collected concurrently.
- What is the quality of the engagement measure and what validation evidence is available? The use of the term “engagement” has skyrocketed in the last decade. Nearly anyone using an employee survey refers to their survey as “employee engagement” -- regardless of the quality or content of questions being asked. Gallup, since the early 1990s, has validated its unique Q12 employee engagement metric by examining the workplace elements that consistently predict various performance outcomes, including profitability, productivity, employee retention, and customer perceptions of service.
While the Leadership IQ study may seem novel or intriguingly counterintuitive, it, unfortunately, provides little substance to back up its claims.
The bottom line, though, is that employee engagement, in the way Gallup defines it, is one of the most important concepts for any business to master. Further research -- whether from Gallup or another company -- on employee engagement is vitally important in helping more companies integrate it and use it to their advantage. The important thing to remember is to look closely at the quality of the research in any new paper before judging the value of its findings. Labels: employee engagement